This guest article is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, Assistant to the City Manager for the City of Arvada, CO. Read all of Matt’s other articles at the Social Justice –> Government homepage.
One challenge in bringing equity into our lines of work is how to adequately measure it. How do we effectively measure whether someone feels included? How do we find a metric for cultural norms? There are ways, and those methods can be time, labor, and knowledge-intensive.
So let’s look at a more straightforward measure for now.
Where do our expenditures go? At the end of the day, there are always more opportunities to serve the public than we have the funding for, therefore we have to prioritize. What are our services that are untouchable? What services can we be flexible with, can we increase or decrease year-to-year? What services are unrealized, always seem just out of reach or completely out of reach?
Most of our local government budgets are not designed to measure the impacts on our community from neighborhood to neighborhood, from demographic to demographic. Most of us rely on line items such as “supplies”, “training”, “salaries and benefits”, “capital expenses,” and others that are useful from a general operations perspective but fall short if our aim is to ensure we’re adequately serving our different populations.
And at this point, I should note that budgets are nothing more than educated guesses, nothing more than a way to organize our finances to help us better manage and monitor them. No one budget method is without its gaps, which is why we rely on multiple.
Accrual-based budgeting helps us know long-term financial stability whereas a cash-flow statement is better for short-term needs as quick examples. We separate capital budgets from operating budgets because each has unique considerations that make separating them useful, though this is but a best practice, not a separation that’s existed as long as human history.
There are ways to look at our funds to better see their impacts. From program-based budgeting to better-utilizing GIS and locations to using an equity framework to evaluate specific projects and services, we can start to see where our dollars are going.
Are we subsidizing new development for multi-million-dollar homes? Are we fixing the parks and roads in the most neglected areas? Do we spend money on features that appeal to children, senior citizens, families, and/or workers? Which of our employees’ skills and knowledge do we value more through the benefits and compensation we give them?
This is not to dismiss other ways of measuring. It’s useful to know market rates for salaries to know if we’re competitive, and it’s useful to see the equity implications as well. We should know how much supplies and equipment cost to see if there are ways to be more efficient and prepared when we need to replace and restock. We should also know who is left out when we delay restocking and replacing.
And similarly, it’s useful to find out whose money is going into our local tax base. Do our funds come from primarily property taxes, sales tax, or something else? Do our fees treat everyone the same regardless of other considerations, or are there step increases for those putting greater strain on our systems? Which businesses drive the local economy, and who are the customers of said business? Are they even our residents or shoppers from neighboring areas or even tourists?
The reason it is often hard to get our heads around how to be equitable, and how to better serve diverse groups, is we deny ourselves the very-much-attainable tools to do so. This isn’t to deny the importance of anecdotal cases, of the employee who feels more welcome after making a statement against hate, of greater understanding and less division after a good implicit-bias training. It is to emphasize that as we try to get more serious and push, pull, and carry the needle forward for equity, we have to put our money where our mouths are.
At the end of the day, it’s how much and in what ways we invest in the poor, the disenfranchised, and those whose life circumstances don’t neatly fit into the mainstream.
For those ready for that next step, for those wanting to get results, one of the best, or perhaps the very best, tool available to us is the budget. It boils down to cold, hard cash.